Belgium slip-sliding in Fed Cup
Not so long ago, there was Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin dominating women's tennis and turning little Belgium into a force in the sport.
Now, Belgium looks destined to sink into the third division of the Fed Cup with its top player possibly skipping the World Group II playoff against Poland this month, the No. 2 already having pulled out and the federation unwilling - or unable - to shell out the money to pick the players' favored surface.
Belgium chose to play on indoor hardcourt when players are gearing up for the red clay season in Europe and the switch for one weekend did not sit well.
`'We are preparing for clay and Belgium says hardcourt," said Rudi Kuyl, the spokesman for Yanina Wickmayer, who confirmed on Tuesday that she won't play.
In-form Kirsten Flipkens, Belgium's current top player, said she would make a decision later. It could leave Poland's fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska and her sister Urszula facing no player from the top 100 in in the world.
It is a far cry from the days when Clijsters and Henin battled each other for No. 1 in the world and, boosted by their play, Belgium won the Fed Cup in 2001 and reached the final in 2006.
In fact, the last time Clijsters played Fed Cup was also the last time Belgium won a tie in the competition, beating the United States 4-1 in February, 2011. What followed were four straight losses as Belgium dropped from the elite World Group to World Group II and now is in a playoff not to slip into the Europe-Africa continental zone.
Even with the 35th-ranked Wickmayer and No. 23 Flipkens, it would have been tough going against Poland. If Flipkens also decides to drop out, Belgium's top-ranked player in the tie could well be No. 181 Alison Van Uytvanck.
When it came to picking a surface, Walter Goethals, the secretary general of the federation organizing the match, said he was always in a bind.
`'We had to take a decision on business logic two months ago," Goethals told The Associated Press. "We didn't know at the time whether they (Flipkens and Wickmayer) were going to play."
Since the weather doesn't facilitate playing outdoors in Belgium in mid-April, the federation would have to prepare an indoor clay court, and Goethals said it was simply too expensive.
`'I won't mention any prices but in the past, in Fed Cup and Davis Cup, we have lost a lot of money. And we cannot afford that anymore," Goethals said.
Wickmayer has a history of back problems, and the surface situation meant she had to pull out, Kuyl said.
`'Surface changes can be bad and have affected Yanina before," Kuyl said. "Now her coach is saying `sorry, we are preparing clay season and Stuttgart,"' the German indoor clay tournament which starts the day after the Fed Cup weekend.
Another issue is ranking points, Goethals said.
`'Fed Cup has none and so it comes second," he said.
If Belgium loses to Poland and drops a division, Goethals fears his top players might not want to return. Although that could bring some positives, as well.
"Then we might have to rely on youth and precocious talent," he said. "That is also how Clijsters and Henin pushed through."